Hayao Miyazaki: The life and lasting influence of the Studio Ghibli auteur-animator

The creation of a single world comes from a huge number of fragments and chaos.” – Hayao Miyazaki.

Over the years, Japanese artist Hayao Miyazaki has created extraordinary, magical and whimsical worlds for both children and adults to lose themselves within. A co-founder of one of the biggest animation studios in the world, Studio Ghibli, Miyazaki has directed masterpieces like Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke which have earned him critical acclaim as well as immense popularity on a global scale. On his 80th birthday, we take a look at the life of the great auteur-animator and how he changed the landscape of animation forever.

Born in Tokyo in 1941, Miyazaki was the second of four sons in an affluent family. His father, Katsuji Miyazaki, worked as the director of the family company which manufactured rudders for fighter planes during the First World War. Since these parts were in high demand during a period of military paranoia and global disruption, the business was booming, and the Miyazaki family was doing well for themselves. This was also a reason why Miyazaki became so obsessed with the idea of flying, exploring it in many of his works but most notably in his relatively recent 2013 film The Wind Rises. In 1944, the family moved away from Tokyo to Utsunomiya because they feared an American attack, but they had to evacuate from their new home again when the city was bombed in 1945. The traumatic experience facilitated the growth of pacifist views which later became a consistent artistic statement, the most striking example of which is his 1984 masterpiece Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. When he was around six years old, Miyazaki’s mother was diagnosed with spinal tuberculosis. Although she would pass away in 1981 at the age of 71, she suffered from the terrible condition for eight years, and it caused extreme distress to the young Miyazaki. More than anything else, he admired his mother: a woman who fought the life-threatening disease and continuously questioned the regressive, conservative societal norms of that time. She had such a formative influence on Miyazaki that it led him to use his mother’s illness as a narrative trope in his brilliant work My Neighbour Totoro (1988) and also inspired him to feature strong female protagonists in many of his films. Of this artistic choice, he later said:

“Many of my movies have strong female leads—brave, self-sufficient girls that don’t think twice about fighting for what they believe with all their heart. They’ll need a friend, or a supporter, but never a saviour. Any woman is just as capable of being a hero as any man.”

Miyazaki became actively interested in animation during his high school days, initially aspiring to be a manga artist. However, he discovered that he could only draw the objects he had been familiar with since he was a child: planes, tanks and battleships. It will come as a strange revelation to many readers that when Miyazaki was starting out, he could not draw people to save his life. The shapes, on paper, were too foreign to the mind of the burgeoning artist. It was this weakness which he turned into one of his greatest strengths, observing how people move and more importantly, what motivates them to move. 

A central element of Miyazaki’s brand of animated realism, his characters move with a spiritual urgency rather than a mechanical accuracy. Now, the ageing artist criticises CGI-technicians for ignoring this vital aspect of animation, for not paying adequate attention to the internal desires of the characters and focusing on mindlessly recreating the dynamics. He was influenced by manga artists like Tetsuji Fukushima and Osamu Tezuka, but he destroyed a lot of his early sketches because he felt his own style did not shine through in his work, and he was only copying from his idols. In 1958, his belief in the power of animation was reinforced when he witnessed the grand spectacle that was Japan’s first colour feature-length anime: Panda and the Magic Serpent. He graduated from university in 1963 with degrees in political science and economics, a place where he also delved deeper into the study of children’s literature as a member of the “Children’s Literature Research Club”.

In 1963, after joining Toei Animation as a new animator, he would go on to forge his early cinematic presence and worked on several anime films including Isao Takahata’s directorial debut The Great Adventure of Horus, Prince of the Sun. This was the beginning of a lifelong collaboration with Takahata who would go on to direct Studio Ghibli masterpieces of his own like Grave of the Fireflies. During this time, Miyazaki also learnt a lot from his mentor, Japanese animator Yasuo Ōtsuka. He left Toei in 1971 with Takahata and worked with him at various major studios, focusing on creating manga as well. After working as a chief animator on so many projects, he finally got the chance to direct his first major feature film: Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro, in 1979, and his new path was set.

Although the film was not an initial box-office success, it has become a cult classic in the years that followed. A pre-cursor to some of Miyazaki’s truly visionary masterpieces, The Castle of Cagliostro employed a unique mixture of visual and cultural references which shaped the evolution of animation. The film is now regarded as an influential work in Miyazaki’s illustrious filmography, with many critics suggesting that it inspired Steven Spielberg’s iconic Indiana Jones series. It marked the start of Miyazaki’s rise to the pinnacle of animation, paving the way for his next masterpiece in 1984: Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind.

First conceived as a popular manga series in the preceding years, Miyazaki dreamt of a post-apocalyptic world in which nature is threatened by the technological weapons of that time. A stunning anti-war work which also handled nuanced themes of ecocriticism, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind is regularly ranked as one of the best anime films ever made. It also gave glimpses of his tendency to underline his art with the sensibilities of the Shinto religion, a pantheistic system of belief which insists that divinity exists in all living things. Therefore, an attack on nature is a transgression against the divine order. Following the film’s release, Miyazaki founded Studio Ghibli in 1985 along with Takahata, Yasuyoshi Tokuma and Toshio Suzuki. The company churned out one brilliant film after another, starting with their first project: Laputa: Castle in the Sky. They had to work simultaneously on two of the greatest films they would ever produce: Takahata’s poignant Grave of the Fireflies and Miyazaki’s whimsical My Neighbour Totoro. The latter is an exquisitely hand-crafted work of art which lets the viewer enter a magical world full of mysterious creatures, a reality which is only visible to children because their hearts aren’t corrupted by modernity just yet. The character of Totoro has become a symbol of hope and comfort for children all over the world because Totoro assures them that magic still exists in remote corners of exploited terrains. You just have to look for it. Miyazaki believes:

“Yet, even amidst the hatred and carnage, life is still worth living. It is possible for wonderful encounters and beautiful things to exist.”

Many believe that My Neighbour Totoro was the apotheosis of Studio Ghibli’s artistic craft because it is still one of their most popular films and it is regularly praised by critics as one of the greatest films ever made. However, Miyazaki’s biggest successes were yet to come. His 1997 fantasy epic Princess Mononoke is the logical extension of his earlier experiments with animation and ecocriticism. It is an allegorical masterpiece which imagines a battle between the Gods of the forest and the humans who continue to treat nature without any reverence. With a strong female protagonist and a beautiful visual translation of Miyazaki’s poetic narrative, Princess Mononoke is art in its most inspiring form. Miyazaki’s ability to maintain an immersive realism in a surreal world is unparalleled, a skill which is on full display in this film. It went on to become the first animated feature film to win the Japan Academy Prize for Best Picture. It was also Miyazaki’s first film which attracted a large American audience, urging Roger Ebert to write in his review that it was “one of the best films of the year”. Princess Mononoke‘s success would be outdone by Miyazaki himself, thanks to the enormous achievements of what is probably Miyazaki’s defining masterpiece: Spirited Away.

Watch a new four-part Hayao Miyazaki documentary online free
(Credit: 大臣官房人事課)

Released in 2001, Spirited Away is the philosophical and fantastical story of a young girl who loses herself in a labyrinthine establishment frequented by supernatural creatures. Unwilling to submit to the misogynistic tropes of this kind of subject material, Miyazaki creates a protagonist who is always fighting for herself and her family. She has agency of her own and is completely capable of finding her own way even though she is trapped in a strange and scary world. The film is a stunning cinematic translation of the Shinto tradition, mixing the religious implications with unique imagery and a characteristic surrealism. Apart from becoming the most successful and highest-grossing film in Japanese history, it is also the first hand-drawn and non-English-language animated film to win the Oscar for Best Animated Feature. The influence of Spirited Away can be easily observed in Disney productions like Brave (2012) and Frozen (2013), thanks to John Lasseter’s (the Chief Creative Officer of Pixar) efforts to introduce it to Western audiences. 

Studio Ghibli had already struck a deal with Disney in 1996, but it wasn’t ideal because Disney did not keep its promise. They altered Miyazaki’s works by changing endings and adding dialogue which was not there in the original films. Disney also refused to sell Studio Ghibli films in their shops, in an attempt to direct audiences towards their own projects. Despite all of this, Miyazaki’s artistic genius helped establish Studio Ghibli as a cultural icon as well as a global phenomenon.

Even though Studio Ghibli’s early works get most of the critical and widespread acclaim, Miyazaki has continued to produce some truly spectacular works of animated wonder. Films such as Howl’s Moving Castle (2004), From Up on Poppy Hill (2011) and The Wind Rises are all examples of Miyazaki’s commitment to his consistent vision, a tremendous artistic achievement for which he was awarded the Academy Honorary Award in 2014. His films have influenced the aesthetic sensibilities of animators as well as live-action filmmakers like Wes Anderson and Guillermo Del Toro among several others. In fact, Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth borrows from Miyazaki’s dark and surreal worlds while Wes Anderson himself admitted that he was inspired by both Miyazaki and Akira Kurosawa while making his 2018 animated film Isle of Dogs. In an interview, he said, “With Miyazaki you get nature and you get moments of peace, a kind of rhythm that is not in the American animation tradition so much.” 

The revolutionary experiments that Miyazaki and his colleagues conducted at Studio Ghibli since the latter half of the last century has shaped not only the future of animation but also filmmaking in general. For people who are venturing into the rich world of anime, Studio Ghibli films are almost always the entry-point, and Miyazaki’s name shines the brightest. He insists that he tries to make films to make children feel good about the world and it is fair to say that he has exceeded his own objective, helping generation after generation of young viewers to observe the magic that exists in the mundane.

Miyazaki is 80 now, but he shows no signs of slowing down. A hard taskmaster and a demanding auteur, he is continuing to push his team to achieve the very best. It is reported that he is working on his last project called How Do You Live?, hand-drawing everything and increasing the quality of the animation by drawing more frames. It will be his final contribution to the world of animation and cinema, a bittersweet farewell to the towering career of one of the all-time greats. When asked about his motivation to do this final film, his colleague Toshio Suzuki said that Miyazaki was making this for his grandson as his way of saying:

Grandpa is moving onto the next world soon but he is leaving this film behind because he loves you.”

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